Thursday, July 24, 2008

My Summer Vacation

(News-Herald, July 24) I took my first trip to Los Angeles, to visit my son who’s out there to learn the acting biz. He’s spending the summer as a bookstore coffee barrista at the corner of Sunset and Vine, living in sumptuous bachelor digs (hey, how much furniture do you really need, anyway). It’s a challenge to send your child off to the scary American West, but awesome to see them turn into courageous grown-ups.

I didn’t hit the whole LA megalopolis; most of my adventures were in the general area of Hollywood. LA didn’t make a big impression. Unlike New York or Chicago or even Cleveland, there’s no place to stand on the curb and let your hick flag fly while you drawl out, “Dang! Lookee there! We ain’t got nothing like that back home!”

LA is mostly spread out and flat; it looks a lot like Erie but just goes on a lot longer. However, LA cleverly avoids monotony by planting mountains right in the middle of things. Actually, not so much mountains as two-sided cliffs.

Eastern cities have grown up in harmony with their geography. The lay of the land sets the shape of the city, and so most Eastern cities, whether we’re talking Buffalo or Franklin, have a harmony with the land.

In the West, it’s different. Las Vegas is the ultimate western city—it could have been plunked down a half mile in any other direction and it wouldn’t have mattered a bit. The cities exist on top of the land, independent of it.

But much of LA is in open combat with the land it sits on. Houses are clawed and clamped onto and into the hillside, like they’d been designed by mutant offspring of Frank Lloyd Wright and Dr. Seuss, barely hanging to land that looks like one pail of water would put quits to the whole thing.

The Hollywood Hills are a meandering maze of roads that are twisted and narrow, like passing slowly through the intestines of a large snake wrapped in a blender tossed in the spin cycle, the hilly parts of Oil City on crack. Mindy Eshelman helpfully demonstrated for me that even someone who lives there and drives with a GPS system can still have trouble getting where they want to go. I can’t imagine anyone ever standing and saying, “Yeah, this would be a great place for a house,” and yet there’s nothing but gazillion-dollar homes.

The driving was surprisingly easy, few things crowded. People are all going somewhere, but they don’t actually stay there. I didn’t see many bizarre Californian fashionistas. Most people I saw would not look out of place at the Cranberry Mall (and most who would were clearly tourists).

We are sometimes told we have much to learn about regional boosterism from other small towns like Frankenmuth. But I’ve come home thinking we can also learn from Hollywood.

100 years ago Hollywood was fields, nothing. Today it’s a really well-developed nothing, a busy nothing. Busloads and planeloads converge on it because they’ve heard that once upon a time something cool happened there. The famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine is indistinguishable from a million other street corners. A tour of the Universal backlot lets you see hundreds of locations where cool things you once saw in a movie happened. But right at this moment, they’re empty.

Some folks are disdainful of events like Oil Heritage Week, in which we celebrate stuff that happened long ago (but isn’t happening now). I say that Oil Heritage Week and Hollywood are just two versions of the same principle at work. One or two little attractions may not convince someone to even cross the street; put a hundred of these side by side, and crowds gather.

We need to stop thinking this is small potatoes, not enough to merit attention. There are only a handful of attractions on the planet that need no puffery, that inspire awe on their own. Things like the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies. The rest of our Great Cool Places have been made into Great Cool Places by some combination of willpower, cheerleading, ambition and willpower.

It takes a lot of individual work. Hollywood wasn’t created by a single bureaucratic entity—just a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of different dreams. We can be that cool.

Did I see any famous celebrities? No, but I wasn’t really looking. I got to see my son, and that was all the celebrity I needed.


Dittman said...

Interesting viewpoint and really nice read.

Just to clarify, my disdain for the petro-fetishism of our area is only in relation to the promotion of oil at the cost of everything else (When was the last time we saw an art exhibiton at the Venango Museum of Art, Science, and Industry?). The OC is making strides to bring the arts into city planning and I not only commend them for that, I hope other Venango regions will pick up on their success (Imagine a county wide Arts Czar(ina) - Oh my! Shivers just ran down my spine!)

There is a great and valid need to perserve our history, but, contrary to what our leaders tell us, not a lot of people plan their vacation to the former buggy whip capitol of the world. Our economic success will be multi-faceted and one special interest can't suck up all the oxygen in the room (or grant monies) if we are to keep this freshet boat afloat.

BTW, did you sit as Schwabs waiting to get discovered? ;)

Peter A. Greene said...

I can't afford to be discovered. I mean, really, who has time to be famous?

As I suggest in this piece, I've always been a big believer in what I call the Applefest effect. Take any single stand or event of the 'fest, and you couldn't get fifty people to show up. But somehow, when you lump it all together, it's a big deal.

And the things that you lump together don't necessarily make intuitive sense-- hmm, what our giant craft show really needs is-- A 5K Race!!! A classic car rally!!!

You have to have a lot of people try to add a lot of things and then what flies, flies. The big development hurdle is that the individual parts won't necessarily be all that awesome or likely, on their own, attract large crowds.

Will people flock here for a whitewater park or an arts colony or a softball tournament or a bike trail or a really old town band? Not at all, and everyone who makes that argument is absolutely correct. But it's beside the point-- what you're after is the cumulative effect of a region that has a whole bunch o' stuff.

I expect that we will be deluged with oil-ness for the next year or so, in honor of the 150th anniversary, and I can live with that. What I would hope is that all the people who truck in here for that will notice plenty of other things going on while they're here.

From my Flickr